Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Voltaire on Fanaticism

Yesterday, on 22 March 2016, jihadist suicide bombers took action in Belgium killing dozens of people at Brussels Airport in Zaventem and in the underground near important EU buildings where one of my friends was working in her office at the time. As we know by now, fanatics like them use to invoke the Qur’an to justify the indiscriminate slaughtering of passersby, but I’m sure that theirs is a rather distorted interpretation of the words of the Holy Prophet Muhammad and that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide will disagree with it because the true message of Islam – as of most religions – is PEACE.

We call jihadists fanatics. But what does this mean? What is fanaticism after all?

At any rate, fanaticism as we understand it today is no new phenomenon in human society considering that already in 1764 French writer and philosopher Voltaire dedicated a long article to it in A Philosophical Dictionary (more precisely in Volume V of a public-domain English translation available on Project Gutenberg). In its first sentence he defined fanaticism as follows:
“Fanaticism is the effect of a false conscience, which makes religion subservient to the caprices of the imagination, and the excesses of the passions.”
This statement is quite technical and requires explanation which the author gladly gave using examples that were clearly inspired by all kinds of zealots of the pagan and Christian past. And he makes it clear that he disapproves of all kinds of fanaticism:
“It is dreadful to observe how the opinion that the wrath of heaven might be appeased by human massacre spread, after being once started, through almost every religion; and what various reasons have been given for the sacrifice, as though, in order to preclude, if possible, the escape of any one from extirpation.”
There’s much truth in his ramblings written in a language rich in vivid images as was typical of Voltaire’s time. It goes without saying that some of his reasoning is outdated and would be considered downright discriminatory today like the statement that 
 “It [fanaticism] is a malady of the mind, which is taken in the same way as smallpox.”
 On the other hand, he made some important points that are still valid:
“Books communicate it [fanaticism] much less than meetings and discourses. ... But when an ardent man of strong imagination addresses himself to weak imaginations, his eyes dart fire, and that fire rapidly spreads; his tones, his gestures, absolutely convulse the nerves of his auditors.” 
Moreover, he was aware that:
“Fanatics are nearly always under the direction of knaves, who place the dagger in their hands. These knaves resemble Montaigne’s ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, who, it is said, made weak persons imagine, under his treatment of them, that they really had experienced the joys of paradise, and promised them a whole eternity of such delights if they would go and assassinate such as he should point out to them.”
Nonetheless, it’s an aphorism that Voltaire is said to have expressed in his castle at Ferney (now: Ferney-Voltaire) in 1769 that best illustrates the character of fanaticism
“Such is fanaticism: it’s a monster without heart, without eyes and without ears. It dares to call itself the son of religion.”
Obviously, the human race hasn’t grown any wiser since the times of Voltaire. Let's hope that one day we'll succeed in chasing away the monster for good so we can live in peace and perfect harmony on this beautiful planet! 


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